How the Police Endanger Public Safety

Law enforcement policies increasingly put the public at risk.

A news photograph from Friday taken in the normally placid suburban community of Roseville, east of Sacramento, was shocking. A California Highway Patrol officer was pointing a rifle at a motorist stopped at a checkpoint, as police searched for an armed parolee who had injured some of their colleagues. It seemed reminiscent of an occupying army.

News stories focused on the suspect and the details of the manhunt, but the police approach – evacuating houses, using military-style vehicles and helicopters – raises a question rarely asked about policing policies today: Do they unnecessarily endanger the public’s safety?

When agencies combed Southern California for former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner in February, some officers fired upon innocent bystanders who didn’t come close to the right profile. Dorner, a large black man, was driving a gray Nissan truck, but an officer shot two Latina women driving a blue Toyota truck. An officer also fired on another bystander 20 minutes later.

Police behaved similarly as they sought a Boston Marathon bomber. As Conor Friedersdorf asked recently in the Atlantic, “Does anyone else find it disturbing that Boston area police, confronted with an unarmed suspect in a backyard boat, fired so many bullets so wildly that multiple adjacent houses were strafed ... ?”

This approach is not uncommon even in day-to-day policing. On October 22, in the middle of the afternoon, 13-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz was walking down the street in Santa Rosa with a plastic pellet rifle. Officers hid behind the door of their patrol car and called to him. As the boy turned, they shot him to death.

According to the police statement, “One of the deputies described that as the subject was turning toward him the barrel of the assault rifle was rising up and turning in his direction. The deputy feared for his safety, the safety of his partner, and the safety of the community members in the area.”

There are ongoing investigations, but this was standard behavior. Police routinely use deadly force in questionable circumstances even as violent crime rates hit record lows. Officer safety seems to trump concerns about public safety.

And there’s remarkably little public discussion about the proper use of deadly force. Because of the California Supreme Court’s 2006 “Copley” decision involving the former owner of this newspaper, the disciplinary records of law-enforcement officers are secret. So are internal investigations of specific shootings. The public has no right to know which officers may have a history of using deadly force.

The Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights makes it tough to remove an officer. Former University of California-Davis cop John Pike, who nonchalantly pepper-sprayed peaceful Occupy protesters in November 2011, was just awarded a $38,000 workers-compensation settlement because of the stress he endured – more than the amount received by any of his victims. Pike spent eight months on paid leave and then was fired.

Yet change only goes in the opposite direction. Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 313, which forbids police agencies from disciplining officers that district attorneys have listed as having lied or otherwise misbehaved. That will further protect officers who unnecessarily use force and then mislead investigators.

“We need law enforcement professionals who are not operating from a vantage point of fear and paranoia where their own self-preservation trumps all other concerns,” argues Jonathan Taylor, a Cal State Fullerton professor. He was active in protests after Fullerton police in 2011 beat a homeless man named Kelly Thomas. The trial for two officers charged in Thomas’ death is slated for December – a rare instance of police being prosecuted for a killing.

“Deadly force should not be the standard whenever police perceive a threat,” Taylor adds. He and other activists call for policy changes as well as changes within a police culture they view as overly militaristic. Police officials say such responses are needed given the very real dangers officers face and the potential threats to the public of having, say, an armed-and-dangerous parolee roaming the streets.

But most politicians of both parties, fearful of the political clout of police unions, don’t want to go near this topic. So change may hinge on whether enough people are upset enough by these incidents to demand it.

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  • Tim||

    Should 100% of police work be conducted as if they are facing a terrorist (

  • sarcasmic||

    Officer safety seems to trump concerns about public safety.

    Uh, what? There is no concern about public safety. None at all. Officer safety is everything.

  • Augustine||

    Good point. It should read "the public's misbegotten perception of the police's concern with public safety."

  • ||

    When you give retarded apes guns and no accountability as to how they use them, this is what you get. When you create a position that attracts retarded apes, this is what you get.

  • Sevo||

    Related:
    Several days ago, a Sonoma Co. deputy blows a kid away since the kid is carrying a B-B gun that looks like an AK47. The exact circumstances of the death remain in question to everyone but the cop.
    Well, now it turns out the cop may well be a bit trigger happy; according to this ( http://www.sfgate.com/crime/ar.....944495.php ) the cop pulled a gun a a guy who he had pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.
    He might be more than trigger-happy. If cops made it a habit to ticket non-signaled lane changes, the state coffers would be overflowing.

  • sarcasmic||

    Did you read the comments?

    Sounds like another Iraq War vet who came back mentally damaged. BushCo shares the blame for this tragedy.

    There is nothing that cannot be blamed on Bush.

  • Sevo||

    No, I didn't. Damn! That guy Bush is truly amazing.
    Why, last week, I heard he's the guy who causes the sun-spot cycles to change! The Dems should really fear a guy with those sorts of powers.

  • OneOut||

    But this can't be true.

    If BushCo were still in charge the guy would still be in Iraqistan killing innocent children on purpose.

    Seriously though there is some merit to the combat veteran turned cop issue. I have a friend/fishing buddy who is a cop. He tells me of a recently returned vet on their squad. He says he refuses to go an a hot entry in front of the guy. He always lines up two guys behind the recent combat veteran.

  • Barry Williams||

    Damned Bush! Should be **** for effing things up so badly!

    I retract the above statement as I do not propose that current or former presidents should be **** for effing things up.

    Please do not arrest me for suspicion of suggesting that any president be **** or even ********* for any reason as I am a loyal American that would gladly die to protect **** from being **** or otherwise *********.

    Self-redacted for my own safety.

  • R C Dean||

    Steven Greenhut observes, such accounts raise answer a question rarely asked about policing policies today: Do they unnecessarily endanger the public’s safety?

    Seriously, is there any question?

  • Swamp Think||

    This pic mentioned in 1st para. http://i.imgur.com/GmXw7Yh.jpg

  • Ebriosa||

    I really don't think I'd be as calm as the guy in the car in that picture. At least the cop doesn't seem to have his finger on the trigger. But - should you not POINT at something you don't intend to SHOOT?

  • Barry Williams||

    Problem is that the cop DOES intend to shoot. When you don't know who the bad guy actually is, everyone becomes the bad guy!

  • Will Nonya||

    Standard cop response "it's ok, we're trained for this puny civilian"

  • thorax232||

    Liberals say only public police should have guns, libertarians say people and the public police should have guns. I say both of these options lead to exactly what each is afraid of, the fictional 'wild west'. It's time for anarcho-captialism.

  • Barry Williams||

    How would that help things?

    Oh wait! You're being sarcastic!

  • Tamfang||

    How is anarcho-capitalism different, gun-wise, from a rule that "people and the public police should have guns"?

  • daniwitz13||

    After much thought, I have a unique answer to all shooting problems and how gun are sold with this thought in mind. How 'Stand your Ground' should be handled. It is a unique philosophy. Never used or stated before but it should solve and resolve a lot of shooting. I don't believe that any of your staff ever reads these comments to take notice of something useful. The people commenting here are NOT going to accept this new concept. Pity.

  • Barry Williams||

    What?

  • Barry Williams||

    I continue to be alarmed by the increasingly militarized police.

    I also continue to be amazed by the over-kill on stupid shit such as suspicious package operations. Evidently, a suitcase on the side of a road in a semi-urban area is suspicious as if someone is going to plant a bomb in so innocuous a place where it is likely to only blow up the person fucking with it!

    I see the day when large urban areas will be routinely paralyzed by terrorists dropping cardboard boxes full of old clothes all over the city so as to cause gridlock by way of the cops deploying all available resources to deal with the potential bombs.

    Of course, this distraction will give the bad guys the opening to do really bad stuff while the gendarmes are tied up on frivolous "bomb" calls.

    Here's what they aren't prepared to handle: semiautonomous aircraft that are controlled by using ubiquitous high-bandwidth cellular-based internet connections to loft high explosive bombs into targets where maximum damage is to be done.

    Oh hell! Now I've done it! I have let the inevitable out of its confines! I won't be surprised to get a visit from the super-secret cops on suspicion that I am some terrorist.

    You know, everyone in the "intelligence" community is aghast that Snowden went and blabbed something that any thoughtful person had already surmised. And what's worse, they act as if it was never going to happen and apparently never planned for if it happened!

  • Barry Williams||

    I shouldn't reply to my own posts I know but I had to correct something.

    Replace "thoughtful person" with "conspiracy theorist".

    Not all of us are nut-jobs with tinfoil hats that believe Bush brought down the WTC on 9/11 with a controlled explosion that would have required potentially thousands of government contractors to keep secret (impossible as proven by Snowden) the rigging of tons of explosives over a period of years that would have started while his father was president and gone right through the Clinton administration as a pretext to invade a third-world country for its vast oil reserves: Afghanistan.

    As if! No pretext is needed of course!

  • Barry Williams||

    And furthermore . . .

    The broaching of government secrets is inevitable. The use of encrypted communications is already rendering the useful gathering of intelligence by electronic means endangered. New technologies will make terrorism easier and stopping it harder.

    (Stoopid 1500 character limit! Like I can't just make multiple posts! SHEESH!)

  • Sondra Eisenman-Torian||

    http://www.offthegridnews.com/.....ake-child/

    This is another story of not only the police, but the "parent police" straight abuse of the system. I worry about my children'
    s future.

  • Sondra Eisenman-Torian||

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....fired.html

    This just recently happened in Dallas.

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